“It’s another kick in the teeth”: Grieving families’ petitions dropped as parliament shuts

With the Petitions Committee closed for the election, campaigners will have to start collecting signatures from scratch.

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Members of the public who have spent months campaigning on petitions to be considered by the House of Commons have had their work wiped out overnight.

On 1 November, the government’s official petitions website informed campaigners that their petitions would be shut down on 6 November. If they want their cause to be considered by the House of Commons, campaigners will now have to resubmit their petition in the next parliament

This means they will lose all the signatures of support that they had worked to get and starting again with nothing.

Louise Smyth and Helen Gray lost their sons Matt and Paul in hit-and-runs only nine months apart. Childhood friends, both men were only in their early twenties. Louise and Helen began campaigning for the government to introduce tougher sentences for drivers who cause death by dangerous or careless driving and who fail to stop at the scene of the crime.

Left shocked by the news that the petitions were closing, Louise said, “I never knew a general election would close one (a petition) down, let alone we would have to start from scratch. I was dumbfounded when I received an email on Friday 1 November with a heads-up that this would be the case… I left it a few hours before replying I was so angry.”

When her petition was shut down, at 12.01am on 6 November, it had received 8,035 signatures. She only needed to reach 10,000 signatures for a formal government response.

Questioning why the petitions had to be closed down, Louise asked, “why not just freeze them so they can all carry on rather than starting from scratch once the election is done and dusted?”

Petitions are brought forward solely by the petitioners, they do not need the support or backing of MPs to be considered. Despite this, they are still classed as part of parliamentary business, which ceases when parliament is dissolved.

Emailing one of the petitioners, the Clerk of the Petitions Committee explained that: “The general election means that parliament is dissolved. This in turn means that the current parliament no longer exists, so there is no parliament to be petitioned and no Petitions Committee to oversee the site.”

How hard can it be in the digital world to press the pause button and restart petitions after the general election? By shutting them down altogether, the ordinary voice gets lost in the politics of Westminster and the chance to turn a negative into a positive is taken away from members of the public.

Melanie Leahy almost lost her petition, but through a last-minute push on social media successfully managed to get it over the requirement of support only a few hours before the deadline.

Melanie lost her son Matthew, 20, in November 2012 when he was under the care of NHS mental health services. Since then she has been petitioning the government to launch a full public inquiry into Matthew’s death.

Melanie said, “I should never have needed to start a petition in the first place and then to be told at month five that it was going to be stopped so abruptly.

“This campaign has been one of the hardest things I have done in my life. Not only fighting during my own grieving process for answers but hearing just how many other families and loved ones have been failed,” she added.

In the final push to pass her petition, it gained over 15,000 supporters in the space of just ten hours; managing just in time to reach the 100,000-mark needed for a petition to be considered for a debate in the House of Commons.

But she said the experience of having all of her hard work almost disappear was torturous and continues to be a horrendous journey, as it is still up to the next government to decide whether they even want to consider petitions that were started before the election.

Louise, meanwhile, has not only lost her petition but also the MP who was supporting her in pushing for the changes that she was recommending. Heidi Allen, who cited abuse as the reason she is stepping down from her role as an MP, had been helping Louise with her cause. They had held a road safety awareness day and had more events planned.

Louise said: “Now Heidi Allen has decided to not stand in the election I have no idea now who, if anyone, would be willing to take on this fight as she has over the last few years.

“We were working our backsides off to get this where we needed it. This damn election hasn’t just killed our petition, but our planned parliament rally on 16 November. It’s been a damn hard slog to get the signatures we had to date, 24/7 went into this.”

Other cancelled petitions that were close to consideration include one calling for the introduction of a minimum sentence equal that for carrying a firearm for those caught carrying knives. That particular petition was only 25 per cent off its target of 100,000 supporters and the potential for a House of Commons debate.

The only option left to campaigners is to submit a new petition and start the long, painful campaigning process again.

Louise is adamant that she will start a new petition, and is considering a written petition this time, to avoid the trouble she has had in submitting one online. But she is worried that those who have previously supported her cause won’t sign the petition as they’ve done it once before, making her job even harder.

She added, “Not only have Helen and I lost our sons, we have now been given another kick in the teeth. If the justice system hasn’t screwed me over already, thanks to the government and its guidelines it now kicks us down again by saying ‘sorry but we can’t man a petition site as there is no government’.”